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Adam Lanza is seen in this photo obtained and distributed by NBC News. Lanza has been identified as the gunman in the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut

Adam Lanza is seen in this photo obtained and distributed by NBC News. Lanza has been identified as the gunman in the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut

How do you forgive the unforgivable? Add to ...

“Forgiveness is not a magic bullet,” he says. “There may well be cases where forgiveness is impossible, because the offender will not take the steps to be forgiven. Then you have to take other steps to get rid of one’s toxic anger. But when it is possible, I think it’s right to forgive.”

Why? Wouldn’t it be simpler to assume, as some social conservatives do, that people cannot change, and that we should therefore take an instructive moral stand and punish those who break the rules, rather than forgive them?

If you hit me, I will hit you back – not out of revenge but because you need to know that you should not hit people.

Besides, forgiveness is notoriously unreliable. We sin, repent, and go right back to sinning.

Prof. Griswold says no, “because forgiving someone who has done everything he can to be forgiven reflects the morals we all cherish: the goodness of reconciliation, the desirability of a new start, and the goodness of love over hatred. …

“Forgiveness is sort of sold as the medicine that will solve all problems. And it won’t. It’s really about holding the offender responsible, and both parties being held to keep their best selves.”

Pardoners are idealists. Their motto is: We can do better.

I was having a drink with an old friend. It was the end of the day, and dark and noisy in the bar, which was full of Christmas shoppers. Through the window, I could see the lights of the city spread out like a lazy harem.

I said to my friend: “Maybe it’s like this: Maybe your husband has an affair; maybe you retaliate. You can’t bring yourself to leave him, but you can’t forgive him. Instead, you hold his affair over his head, using his transgression every time you need it, as leverage, as a way to keep him there but also at a distance. Eventually this makes you feel so lonely that you actually forgive him. And suddenly, in an instant, you can leave him.”

“Yes,” my friend said, “forgiveness is mostly for the forgiver. I think you have to forgive just to go on living.”

But the act always feels huge, ancient, slightly sacred, as if we are struggling to find within ourselves the trace of a long-lost ritual and pattern. Forgiving someone feels impossible and yet familiar at the same time.

There’s a reason for that. “We have a model for forgiveness,” psychiatrist Vivian Rakoff told me not too long ago. “Alas, it’s a model I am only too familiar with these days.”

Dr. Rakoff’s son David, a well-known writer, died this year at the age of 47. “It’s grief, and mourning. How can you forgive a deity who would do such a terrible thing? Forgiveness is a slow accommodation to reality. Then you move on.”

Even Julian Lennon has forgiven Mark Chapman, his famous father’s killer, who is still in jail.

“What am I going to do?” he told The Times of London last year. “If I don’t forgive, I can’t be at peace. It’s not a religious statement. It’s a question of self-preservation.”

These days, in its most contemporary form, forgiveness looks like this: 70-odd people listening to public confessions in the rotunda of Metro Hall, an undistinguished pile of offices. It’s 7 in the evening. Everything is grey: grey walls, grey floors, grey chairs. It’s like sitting in a dead lung.

This is F-You, the Toronto Forgiveness Project. This is its second meeting in two years, organized by Tara Muldoon, a public-relations specialist “from a background of sexual trauma.” Most of the audience is under 40; there is a large contingent of local hip-hop artists who have taken enthusiastically to Ms. Muldoon’s initiative.

Arda Ocal, a local TV sports journalist, is at the front of the room saying, “Hey, guys – how’s everybody doing out there?” Next to him is a screen that flashes quotations, such as “TURN YOUR WOUND INTO WISDOM (OPRAH).”

The crowd is instructed to greet one another with what one leader explains is a Swahili greeting (it means, “I see your soul”): One person says sawubona and the other replies yabo sawubona . When Nova, the woman teaching the crowd to do this, says, “Thank you for doing that,” someone in the audience says, “Thank you for teaching us that.” Then Nova says, “ Sawubona .”

You can make fun of this earnestness, but the crowd is eager for the encounter, full of enthusiasm. To judge from the confessions of the people speaking – rape victims, former addicts, gang members, people who were once lost to themselves – it’s a public absolution, a washing away of their sins in the world – not to be guiltless or irresponsible, but to escape the self-perpetuating burden of shame and judgment.

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